Alexamenos graffito

Alexamenos graffito

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The Alexamenos graffito (also known as the graffito blasfemo
Blasphemy is irreverence towards religious or holy persons or things. Some countries have laws to punish blasphemy, while others have laws to give recourse to those who are offended by blasphemy...

) is an inscription
Graffiti is the name for images or lettering scratched, scrawled, painted or marked in any manner on property....

 carved in plaster on a wall near the Palatine Hill
Palatine Hill
The Palatine Hill is the centermost of the Seven Hills of Rome and is one of the most ancient parts of the city...

 in Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

, now in the Palatine Antiquarium Museum. It is alleged to be among the earliest known pictorial representations of the Crucifixion of Jesus
Crucifixion of Jesus
The crucifixion of Jesus and his ensuing death is an event that occurred during the 1st century AD. Jesus, who Christians believe is the Son of God as well as the Messiah, was arrested, tried, and sentenced by Pontius Pilate to be scourged, and finally executed on a cross...

, together with some engraved gems.


The image depicts a human-like figure attached to a cross
Crucifixion is an ancient method of painful execution in which the condemned person is tied or nailed to a large wooden cross and left to hang until dead...

 and possessing the head of a donkey
The donkey or ass, Equus africanus asinus, is a domesticated member of the Equidae or horse family. The wild ancestor of the donkey is the African Wild Ass, E...

. In the top right of the image appears what has been variously interpreted as either the Greek letter upsilon
Upsilon is the 20th letter of the Greek alphabet.  In the system of Greek numerals it has a value of 400. It is derived from the Phoenician waw. The name of the letter is pronounced in Modern Greek, and in English , , or...

 or a tau cross. To the left of the image is a young man, apparently intended to represent Alexamenos, raising one hand in a gesture possibly suggesting worship.
Beneath the cross there is a caption written in crude
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

: Αλεξαμενος ϲεβετε θεον. In standard Greek, the word ϲεβετε is the imperative
Imperative mood
The imperative mood expresses commands or requests as a grammatical mood. These commands or requests urge the audience to act a certain way. It also may signal a prohibition, permission, or any other kind of exhortation.- Morphology :...

 of the verb "worship". This would suggest a translation of the entire sentence as "Alexamenos, worship God!". However it has been suggested by several scholars that ϲεβετε should be understood as a variant spelling (possibly a phonetic
Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that comprises the study of the sounds of human speech, or—in the case of sign languages—the equivalent aspects of sign. It is concerned with the physical properties of speech sounds or signs : their physiological production, acoustic properties, auditory...

 misspelling) of Standard Greek ϲεβεται, which means "worships". As a result, the full inscription would then be translated as "Alexamenos worships [his] God". Several other sources suggest "Alexamenos worshipping God", or similar variants, as the intended translation.


No clear consensus has been reached as to the date in which the image was originally made. Dates ranging from the late 1st to the late 3rd century have been suggested, although the beginning of the 3rd century is thought the most likely date.

Discovery and location

The graffito was discovered in 1857 when a building called the domus Gelotiana was unearthed on the Palatine Hill
Palatine Hill
The Palatine Hill is the centermost of the Seven Hills of Rome and is one of the most ancient parts of the city...

. The emperor Caligula
Caligula , also known as Gaius, was Roman Emperor from 37 AD to 41 AD. Caligula was a member of the house of rulers conventionally known as the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Caligula's father Germanicus, the nephew and adopted son of Emperor Tiberius, was a very successful general and one of Rome's most...

 had acquired the house for the imperial palace, which, after Caligula died, became used as a Paedagogium or boarding-school for the imperial page boys
Page (servant)
A page or page boy is a traditionally young male servant, a messenger at the service of a nobleman or royal.-The medieval page:In medieval times, a page was an attendant to a knight; an apprentice squire...

. Later the street on which the house sat was walled off to give support to extensions to the buildings above, and it thus remained sealed for centuries. The graffito is today housed in the Palatine antiquarium in Rome.


The inscription is accepted by the vast majority of scholars to be a mocking depiction of a Christian
A Christian is a person who adheres to Christianity, an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Canonical gospels and the letters of the New Testament...

. Both the portrayal of Jesus as having a donkey's head and the depiction of him being crucified would have been considered insulting by contemporary Roman society. Crucifixion continued to be used as an execution method for the worst criminals until its abolition by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century, and the impact of seeing a figure on a cross could be compared with the impact today of portraying a man with a hangman's noose around his neck, or seated in an electric chair.

The accusation that Christians practiced onolatry
Onolatry is worship of the donkey: old Oriental and African worship attributed also to the Jewish people who travelled in the desert.During the Imperial Rome, the charge of onolatry was used by the pagans to taunt the first Christians and Jews. A famous example of this is the Alexamenos...

(donkey-worship) seems to have been common at the time. Tertullian
Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, anglicised as Tertullian , was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. He is the first Christian author to produce an extensive corpus of Latin Christian literature. He also was a notable early Christian apologist and...

, writing in the late second or early third century, reports that Christians, along with Jews, were accused of worshipping a deity with the head of an ass. He also mentions an apostate Jew who carried around Carthage
Carthage , implying it was a 'new Tyre') is a major urban centre that has existed for nearly 3,000 years on the Gulf of Tunis, developing from a Phoenician colony of the 1st millennium BC...

 a caricature
A caricature is a portrait that exaggerates or distorts the essence of a person or thing to create an easily identifiable visual likeness. In literature, a caricature is a description of a person using exaggeration of some characteristics and oversimplification of others.Caricatures can be...

 of a Christian with ass's ears and hooves, labeled Deus Christianorum Onocoetes ("the God of the Christians begotten of an ass").

Others have suggested that the graffito depicts worship of the Egyptian gods Anubis
Anubis is the Greek name for a jackal-headed god associated with mummification and the afterlife in ancient Egyptian religion. In the ancient Egyptian language, Anubis is known as Inpu . According to the Akkadian transcription in the Amarna letters, Anubis' name was vocalized as Anapa...

 or Seth
Set (mythology)
Set was in Ancient Egyptian religion, a god of the desert, storms, and foreigners. In later myths he was also the god of darkness, and chaos...

or that the young man is actually engaged in a gnostic ceremony involving a horse
The horse is one of two extant subspecies of Equus ferus, or the wild horse. It is a single-hooved mammal belonging to the taxonomic family Equidae. The horse has evolved over the past 45 to 55 million years from a small multi-toed creature into the large, single-toed animal of today...

-headed figure and that rather than a Greek upsilon it is a tau cross at the top right of the crucified figure.

It has also been suggested that both the graffito and the roughly contemporary gems with Crucifixion images related to heretical groups outside the main church.


There is some controversy whether the veneration
Veneration , or veneration of saints, is a special act of honoring a saint: an angel, or a dead person who has been identified by a church committee as singular in the traditions of the religion. It is practiced by the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic, and Eastern Catholic Churches...

 of the crucifix
A crucifix is an independent image of Jesus on the cross with a representation of Jesus' body, referred to in English as the corpus , as distinct from a cross with no body....

 depicted in the graffito was actually practiced by contemporary Christians, or whether it was another element, like the ass's head, added to the image to ridicule Christian beliefs. According to one argument, the alleged presence of a loincloth on the crucified figure, in contrast to usual Roman procedure in which the condemned was completely naked, proves that the artist must have based his illustration on an activity he had observed Alexamenos or others performing. Also, Flavius Josephus speak about these in his book: Against Apion
Against Apion
Against Apion was a polemical work written by Flavius Josephus as a defense of Judaism as a classical religion and philosophy, stressing its antiquity against what he perceived as more recent traditions of the Greeks.-Text:Against Apion 1:8 also defines which books he viewed as being in the Jewish...

 (Contre Apion), 2.80, 1930, 72-73. Against this it has been argued that the cross was not actually used in worship until the fourth and fifth centuries.

"Alexamenos fidelis"

In the next chamber, another inscription in a different hand reads in Latin Alexamenos fidelis, meaning "Alexamenos is faithful" or "Alexamenos the faithful". This has been suggested as a riposte, by an unknown party, to the mockery of Alexamenos as represented in the graffito.

External links

See also and: Josephe Flavius, Contre Apion, II (VII), 2.80, traduit per Leon Blum, LBL, 1930, 72-74.
Norman Walker,The Riddle of the Ass's Head..., ZAW, 9, 1963, 219-231.